Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Watchdog group gives top court a C for financial disclosures

Maryland’s high court receives a grade of C — but just barely — when it comes to financial disclosures filed by the states’ top judges, according to a nationwide report released Wednesday by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Maryland Court of Appeals’ score of 72.5 percent, however, was second-highest in the center’s list of state court grades, trailing only California, which scored 77 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court received a grade of B, with a score of 84 percent, from CPI, a Washington-based watchdog group.

The report credits Maryland with some of the toughest laws in the country when it comes to financial disclosures for its high-court judges but criticized the requirement that the public inspect the forms on-site and that Court of Appeals judges need not disclose reimbursements for some conference expenses.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera did not respond Wednesday afternoon to telephone messages seeking comment on the CPI’s grade.

Financial disclosure forms can reveal potential conflicts of interest, the report noted.

For example, Court of Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. disclosed that he had a mortgage with JPMorgan Chase in 2012, the same year he wrote a unanimous opinion in favor of the lender on secondary mortgages, the report stated.

“It’s true that I had the refinance loan on my home,” Harrell told the center. “There’s no actual conflict. It’s a commercial rate available to others. I always pay my bill on time, and I hold no grudge against them.”

Under Maryland’s Code of Judicial Conduct, judges are required to recuse themselves “in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might be questioned,” including a case in which they have “a significant financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding.” Significant financial interest is defined as having received or being entitled to receive more than $1,000 per year.

Harrell told the center his second mortgage through the bank did not meet Maryland’s standard for recusal.

“If I had owned stock in JPMorgan, that would be entirely different,” he said.

According to his financial disclosure form for calendar year 2012, Harrell owed JPMorgan Chase $196,950.23 on his mortgage as of Dec. 31, to be paid in monthly installments of $1,524.62.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, of Common Cause Maryland, said the combination of Harrell’s mortgage and his participation in the JPMorgan Chase case “rises to the level of potential conflict” of interest

“You can easily see how a banking case could affect that loan or that lender,” added Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the watchdog group, which is not affiliated with CPI. “This is why the financial disclosures matter.”

CPI, in its Maryland report, listed as the Court of Appeals’ disclosure “strengths” the requirement that judges disclose not only their own financial interests, but also those of their spouses and children. Court of Appeals judges also list their real-estate holdings, including when the property was acquired and from whom; the number of shares they own in publicly traded companies; and their transactions involving those investments.

The report, however, faults the Court of Appeals for requiring people who want to see the reports to visit the Maryland Judiciary’s Annapolis offices in person.

Echoing CPI’s criticism, Common Cause said the judges’ financial disclosure forms should be available online, as they are for state and local elected officials.

Judicial disclosures “should be as transparent as [for] any other public official,” Bevan-Dangel said.

CPI also faulted the Court of Appeals’ disclosure documents for not specifically asking the judges to list their reimbursement for expenses, such as transportation and lodging for conferences, though many jurists do anyway.

In addition, the Court of Appeals self-polices the accuracy and timeliness of the disclosure form, meaning that the state lacks “meaningful authority to enforce penalties on judges who file disclosures improperly,” the report stated.

The CPI report is not the first time financial disclosures for Maryland judges have been criticized.

In 2011, The Daily Record reported that the state’s top judges had since 1975 disclosed the bare minimum on their reports “listing information only if it varies from the prior year’s filing.”

In most cases, the judges simply wrote “no change” on their reports.

But since that 2011 article, the Court of Appeals’ judges have generally not used “no change” and listed the financial information even if it had not changed from the prior year.

Three states do not require financial disclosure by their high-court judges: Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to CPI. Each state received grades of 0 percent in the report.

The most recent financial disclosure forms for the seven Maryland Court of Appeals judges:

Daily Record legal affairs reporter Steve Lash also contributed to this story.